15 - 21 June 2000
Issue No. 486
|Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875|
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A Diwan of contemporary life (342)
The Diwan series takes us away from Egypt temporarily for a look at World War I and its background as penned by one of the key players. Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II published the first past of his memoirs in 1922 and the second four years later. Al-Ahram was quick to serialise the first part to acquaint its readers with the views of the "other side" in the conflict in order to balance the version disseminated by the Allies. As the war approached its end and Germany's defeat became a certainty, Wilhelm chose exile in The Netherlands and lived there until he died in 1941. Between October 1922 and the following January Al-Ahram published 49 instalments of Wilhelm's memoirs. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk *reviews them with a critical eye.
The vanquished looks back"Woe to the vanquished" is a saying frequently reiterated in the wake of war to epitomise the conditions of capitulation imposed by the victors upon the conquered party. Such conditions might stipulate the victors' occupation of a portion of the defeated country's territory for a particular duration or an exorbitant punitive financial toll exacted from the subjugated power as compensation for the losses incurred by the conquering powers. Capitulation terms might also include war trials of the political and military leaders of the defeated party, such as the Nuremberg trials following the second World War. Sometimes, too, prisoners of war belonging to the defeated party are pressed into the labours of reconstruction, and, finally, the defeated nation may remain barred from membership in international organisations for lengthy periods.
While such punitive measures are often harsh, there is also the additional measure which we might term the "hidden penalty" -- the deliberate campaign to demonise the defeated enemy and to glorify its conquerors. Towards this end, the victors mobilise their propaganda machine -- writers, journalists, television programmers and cinema producers -- to project an image of a satanic ogre felled by the champion of all that is good and worthy.
More than half a century has passed since the end of World War II, yet the Nazi's secret police, the Gestapo, remains the catchword for the heavy arm of state terror, and Goebbels continues to symbolise the mastermind of the totalitarian propaganda apparatus. The implacable might of the German military machine, and its Japanese counterpart, have long been fodder for the silver screen and television, notably in such films as The Great Escape, The Guns of Navarone and The Bridge on the River Kwai.
The leaders who formed the substance of these images of evil were not around to defend themselves against international condemnation. Hitler committed suicide just as Berlin fell to the Allied forces and Mussolini was strung up on a tree in Milan before the Allies entered that city.
The same cannot be said, however, of Kaiser Wilhelm II, who led his country into the first world war (August 1914 to November 1918). When defeat appeared inevitable the German emperor fled to The Netherlands, which had remained neutral during the war, and he remained there until his death nearly a quarter of a century later in 1941.
The victorious powers were at odds with one another over what treatment to mete out to the absconded emperor. Some wanted to bring him to trial, while the US and Japan dissented, thinking it wiser to leave the man in peace. In all events, that difference was settled when Amsterdam refused to hand over the Kaiser to his former enemies. Wilhelm II was thus allowed to live out the remainder of his days in The Netherlands in peace.
Red Cross workers in the battlefield
During his retirement, the former Kaiser devoted himself to his memoirs, in which he challenged the "hidden penalty" through his attempt to refute the many allegations and aspersions spread by the allied powers against his reign and his country. The memoirs drew a great deal of interest and were translated into most European languages. Undoubtedly, readers were interested in the personality of the deposed emperor himself. Described by his detractors as an "impetuous, ungrateful youth" after his accession to the throne in 1888 at the age of 29, Kaiser Wilhelm II had been quick to exert his imperial powers. Two years after his coronation he dismissed the famous "Iron Chancellor," Otto Von Bismarck, noted particularly for his unification of Germany in 1870. Also during his reign he entered into a bitter contest with Britain over its "mastery of the seas," earning himself the lasting animosity of the "Empire upon which the sun never sets." Additionally, he engaged in a vicious arms race with Russia and France, who were allied in an entente of their own -- a process that set off the initial spark that ignited the World War I.
That the memoirs of the last of the German Kaisers were published in the autumn of 1922 also accounted for some of the widespread interest in this work. Four years had elapsed since the cessation of hostilities -- enough time to assuage the rancour of the wartime enemies, or at least enough for them to be prepared to give ear to another opinion. In fact, the memoirs, which covered the period from 1888 to 1918 were so popular that the author was encouraged to publish a second volume. Appearing in 1926, My Early Life covered the period from Wilhelm's birth in 1859 to his accession to the throne in 1888.
It is not surprising that Al-Ahram should seize the opportunity to present to its readers the memoirs of the notorious German protagonist in this war. It featured the memoirs in full, serialised over 49 instalments from 10 October 1922 to 12 January the following year under the headline: "Ereignisse und Gestalten (Events and Characters) or the memoirs of Wilhelm II, the former German Emperor." It is interesting to note that Al-Ahram was keen on presenting as thorough a translation as possible. In the preface to the series, the newspaper noted that the translators -- "Asaad Effendi Dagher and Muhibb El-Din Effendi El-Khatib, who write for this newspaper" -- had relied on both the French and Turkish versions. This was "because the newspapers and magazines in Paris and Istanbul only feature those portions of the memoirs of the former Emperor that they choose to publish, the result being that most of what appears in Paris does not appear in Turkey and vice versa." By combining the two versions, it continues, the translators succeeded in producing "a complete and accurate translation."
Naturally, the initial thrust of the ex-Kaiser's memoirs was to alter the image of himself as disseminated by the allied powers. Aware that the commonly held impression of him as an "impetuous, ungrateful youth" was largely due to his having dismissed the seasoned Bismarck early on in his reign, he justifies this action on the grounds of the tensions inherent in the generation gap between himself and the elder statesman. His grandfather, Wilhelm I, from whom he inherited the throne, was over 90 when he died. Bismarck was 73 at the time of his grandfather's death. "The reason for the painful discord between myself and Bismarck was that I assumed the throne on the heels of my grandfather, as though I had cheated time and jumped a generation ahead. The difficulty of such a situation is readily apparent, for I found myself in the midst of white-haired men whose venerable stature rendered them closer to the past than to the present and whose age hampered progress."
The former German ruler goes on to explain the animosity between his country and France and Britain that began to fester in the late 19th century, in spite of the fact that he was personally closely related to the British royal house. Queen Victoria, in fact, was his grandmother on the maternal side.
The fault for the tensions, he suggests, lay with the "Gauls" (the French) and Anglo-Saxons who colluded to "strangle" Germany. In 1897, Britain and France signed a series of secret understandings intended to destroy the Germanic ideal as embodied in both Austria and Germany. Culminating these pacts was the Entente Cordiale, signed by Paris and London in 1904. The entente, he wrote, was a "baptism" for that newborn collusion, which provoked "surprise mixed with anger in Germany, even if, in the eyes of the allies, it was only an official admission of a state that had existed for a long time."
Further corroborating the Anglo-French collusion against Germany was the latter's failure to strike up an alliance with Britain in 1907. Wilhelm II recounts that, while on board the British royal yacht at the invitation of King Edward VII, he instructed his chancellor to approach the British king on that subject. Edward's response was unequivocal. Such an alliance was "not worthwhile, in his opinion, in view of the absence of any cause for discord or ill-will between the two countries." To Wilhelm, the British monarch's response was yet another "manifestation of the British policy of strangulation, which later surfaced openly when Britain backed France and harassed Spain, in accordance with the designs conceived by King Edward himself."
Against this provocation by Britain and France, Wilhelm had no alternative but to lift the morale and improve the standing of the German army and imperial navy. Germany, he writes, was "caught between France and Russia and had to be strong enough to defend itself on land and at sea against those two nations." Yet, he maintains categorically that it was never his intention to "rival" the British fleet, which was "four or five times as large as our fleet" and was "so powerful and invincible that no sane German believed that we could obtain a fleet to equal it."
Rather, he insists, the build-up of the German military machine was for primarily defensive purposes. The German coasts on the Baltic, he writes, were extremely vulnerable because the existing fortifications were "so old and insufficiently armed that modern battleship artillery fire could destroy them within 48 hours." It was, therefore, essential to develop a fleet capable of "defending these coasts which would never have been able to resist an assault." Such preparations acquired considerable urgency in light of the Franco-Russian alliance of 1893. Germany viewed that pact with considerable anxiety, "because those two nations were better armed than we were and their fleets were more modern and lethal, for Germany had no more than a few old ships that could never have stood up in battle." By strengthening the German navy, he wanted to instill "the fear of adventurism" among the fleets of the enemy, "who, no matter how strong, would have to think carefully before engaging in hostilities against our fleet. The fear of the losses, which they would suffer in the course of battle and which would render their ships incapable of undertaking future action, would prevent them from attacking the German fleet."
Kaiser Wilhelm II
The former German Kaiser goes to great lengths to prove, contrary to the claims of the victors of World War I, that it was not the Central Powers, but rather the Allied Powers that fired the first shot of that war. Already in April 1914 British banks had begun to collect gold, while Germany continued to export its gold and wheat until June that year. In Russia, meanwhile, the director of the royal military academy delivered an impassioned speech to his officers, asserting that war with the Central Powers was inevitable and that the country would have to prepare for battle. In fact, as early as February 1914, during a meeting of the Russian royal council, the Russian prime minister urged the Czar to occupy Istanbul, adding, "as the Central Powers will not condone that we will certainly have to engage in war against Germany and Austria." More sinister yet, at the end of July 1914, the French ambassador to Berlin confided to close associates that, "if Germany is drawn into war it will be opposed by Britain and the British fleet will take Hamburg by storm and crush Germany for good."
The exiled emperor goes on to refute Britain's claim that it entered the war because the Germans had violated Belgium's neutrality when they advanced upon northern France. That neutrality was just an illusion, he protests. German forces found in that small country hundreds of maps that had been drawn up by the British military command and he, personally, had seen several of those maps, which were written in English and which had been made in Southampton in 1911.
Finally, the German Kaiser accused the Great Masonic Lodge of having taken part in the conspiracy against Germany. In 1917 the lodge held a conference in Paris where it drew up an agenda for separating Austria from Hungary. Until then the two countries had been joined together in the dual Austrian-Hungarian monarchy under the Habsburg crown. The plan also called for transforming Germany into a democratic state after deposing its emperor, returning Alsace-Lorraine to France and curtailing the influence of the Pope and the Catholic church.
The hostilities of World War I lasted much longer than any of the warring parties had anticipated. When, by the third year, neither side was able to secure a decisive victory that would put an end to the continuous attrition on both sides, several parties attempted to intervene to secure a peace. The most famous was the practical and detailed initiative undertaken by Pope Benedict XV, which nevertheless ended in failure.
The Allies blamed the German emperor for this failure, a charge that Wilhelm II hotly denies in his memoirs. In the summer of 1917, he relates, he met with the Vatican delegate in Kronach. Instead of proceeding immediately to a discussion of the specific points the Vatican ambassador brought with him, the emperor asked the delegate to convey to his superiors his request that the Vatican instruct its clergy to "fight the hatred that has gripped peoples' hearts." He went on to add, "The clergy of the Allies are of that breed that fuels rancour and have no better occupation than to incite the people into further battle. Our military reports have shown that many priests and clergymen bearing arms have fallen into our hands."
The Kaiser went on to relate that, although the Vatican envoy seemed sympathetic to his request, he said that "it would not be easy to persuade certain bishops." The Kaiser was extremely irritated by this response, which was not a very encouraging beginning to the negotiations. To make matters worse, the Vatican envoy insisted that they discuss only the political, not the religious, means the Pope could use to mediate a peace settlement.
In all events, Wilhelm suggested that the Vatican exert some pressure on Italy, which had recently joined the allied effort, since "that country was the Pope's home and its people revered him." The envoy responded that the Vatican had no connection with the Italian government and could exert no influence on its foreign ministry. The Italian government, moreover, rejected all appeals to negotiate and if the pope attempted to push Rome in that direction, Rome would immediately respond by "inciting the mobs against him." This the Kaiser found difficult to believe, and he told the envoy, "I know the Vatican well. It is not afraid of the mobs or the plebeians. In fact, the Pope has many champions among the people who would rush to his defense."
Two french soldiers wading through the dead
Reading these excerpts, it seems obvious that the Kaiser and the Vatican envoy were speaking at cross-purposes. While the pope wanted to use his offices to effect a peace, having determined that the circumstances were propitious, the German emperor sought to bring the weight and status of the Catholic church to the service of the Central Powers. That would have been no small coup, since his ally, Austria, was one of the largest, predominantly Catholic countries at that time. It was, thus, only natural that the pope's initiative would collapse. Even though Wilhelm was clearly trying to exonerate himself of this outcome, one cannot help but discern from his own memoirs that he, himself, bore a considerable share of the guilt.
Wilhelm II devotes the rest of his memoirs to the circumstances that led to his country's defeat in the war. He was severely critical of the Austrian emperor, who imagined that by manoeuvring secretly to conclude a separate peace he could preserve his empire intact. The German kaiser recalls, "Emperor Karl (Charles I), acting on his own, established secret contact with the Allies. He had long before made up his mind to abandon us. Yet, if he could have kept his nerve for just another three weeks, the situation would have entirely changed."
Contrary to the Austrian monarch's predictions, his early and independent surrender enabled most of the national entities that had made up his patchwork empire to break away. As Wilhelm gloatingly remarked in his memoirs, King Charles had brought about the disintegration of his empire with his own hands.
But Wilhelm also cast a measure of blame for Germany's defeat on the government in Berlin. The failure of that government to sustain the morale of the German people led to the outbreak of insurrection among the soldiers on the front and to public calls for his abdication. A sign of the weakness of that government was that it actually pressured him to step down. Had the decision been entirely in his hands, he would not have done so, he wrote. However, senior military officers feared that his abdication would "make the commanding officers abandon the field of battle. Left leaderless, their troops would rampage throughout Germany, causing immense damage and, perhaps, the situation would reach the point where make battle with their brethren." There is no telling how accurate this officers' assessment was as rulers invariably find it difficult to let go of the mantle of power and luxury.
As the last of the German Kaisers draws to the end of his account, he adopts a tone that is at once bitter and righteous. "The policy of strangulation engineered by the British, France's thirst for revenge, Russia's ambitions and its conformity with French policy -- all these factors wrought the Allies' hostility to Germany and ignited the flames of war in the world. The situation was that the Allies' aims could only be realised through war, while Germany's aims could only be attained through peace."
Wilhelm II concludes with the admonition: "War has no heart and no soul. In victory it finds justification for all actions, even the most brutal and savage. What in the world could be more atrocious than for people to fire enormous artillery shells at civilised men and to destroy flourishing cities and ancient monuments? That is precisely what the warring parties did during the war." This wisdom fell on deaf ears, for within less than 20 years following the publication of his memoirs, the world was aflame in another universal war far more brutal and destructive than the first one.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.